British plan for the Peenemünde raid.
Target 3/Air/389, Attack order with highlighted targets.
Shortly after 1:10 A.M., Wednesday, August 18, 1943, the sound of anti-aircraft artillery jolted General Dornberger awake. After a moment of confusion, he leaped out of bed and began to dress. A bomb blast rocked the Development Works guest house where he was staying. Attired in uniform breeches, pajama top, trench coat and bedroom slippers, he pushed his way past broken glass and doors blown off their hinges, only to stand “transfixed” in the garden. Artificial fog from smoke generators rolled across the complex; a full moon, searchlights, exploding shells, and descending British target-marking flares lit up the sky; flak, bomb blasts, and the “monotonous drone” of four-engine bombers “assaulted” his ears. The attack was not a complete surprise. There had been many alarms in the recent past, and a handful of bombs had previously fallen in the area. In the almost comic first raid in July 1940, a solitary and lost RAF aircraft had killed a cow and set a haystack on fire. But this time it was clear that the Allies knew about the rocket center and had set out to destroy it.
The initial target was the Settlement, a residential community of three to four thousand with its own school, community buildings, and firehouse. The RAF had quite consciously decided to try to catch the leading engineering personnel in their beds. Because of a target-marking error, however, many bombers overshot their aiming points by 3 kilometers. Bombs rained down first on the Trassenheide construction labor camp, where more than three thousand foreign workers, mostly from Eastern Europe, were trapped inside barracks or behind barbed-wire fences. Hundreds were killed. The Settlement soon received hundreds of tons of bombs too, destroying at least three-quarters of the houses and apartment buildings. The residences near the beach housing young Labor Service women were particularly hard hit. Most of the leading personnel had made it safely to makeshift shelters and trenches. From the standpoint of the project, the only really irreplaceable loss was Dr. Walter Thiel, who was killed with his whole family by a direct hit on their shelter while their house remained relatively undamaged. Peenemünde’s rocket engine development would suffer from his absence.
Shortly after 1:30, the attack shifted to the Production Plant and then to the Development Works. But the tendency to overshoot continued, with the result that more bombs fell on the Settlement and Trassenheide. No devastating damage was inflicted on the important facilities farther north; the all-important wind tunnels and guidance and control buildings were almost untouched. Still, at least twenty-five buildings in the Development Works were set afire or damaged, including House 4, the headquarters building. After the raid ended at 2:07, Wernher von Braun and one of his secretaries risked their lives salvaging secret documents from the burning structure. Only scattered bombs fell on the test stands even farther up the island, suggesting that the British had not perceived their importance, and Peenemünde-West was untouched because the flying-bomb program was unknown to the Allies.
In the initial shock after the raid, Schubert estimated more than one thousand dead, but according to Dornberger’s postwar accounts, 732 or 735 were killed, of whom about five to six hundred were foreign laborers. Among the concentration camp prisoners in the Fl, Willi Steimel later reported eighteen dead and sixty injured, but the scattered bombs that fell on that enormous factory building did not damage it much. They exploded high overhead on the roof, while the heavy concrete floor of the main hall helped to protect the equipment and prisoners in the basement.
Dubbed “Operation Hydra” by the RAF, that raid was the opening of what was soon called “Crossbow,” the Allied campaign against the German secret weapons sites. Ever since the close of 1942 London had received an increasing number of reports about rocket development from inside Germany. The Propaganda Ministry’s growing threats of “vengeance” and “wonder” weapons had encouraged careless talk by knowledgeable Germans and had frightened opponents of the regime. The greatly expanded foreign labor force at Peenemünde was a further source of information to the Allies. British intelligence had dismissed earlier reports as too fantastic or as German disinformation, but as evidence mounted in the spring of 1943 that Peenemünde really was the center of some kind of rocket work, high-altitude RAF reconnaissance planes had repeatedly photographed the complex.
On the German side, the growing Allied air raids had made those responsible for the program increasingly concerned about the possibility of espionage and air attack. After discussions with the A-4 Special Committee, the Army had given its facility a cover name as of June 1, “Home Artillery Park 11,” and use of the word “Peenemünde” was banned from documents. Karlshagen, a small hamlet near the Settlement, became the new postal address. On May 21 Himmler had ordered that SS guard posts be erected at checkpoints a few kilometers south of the base gate at Karlshagen, probably because of the approaching arrival of concentration camp prisoners. With the support of Speer and Milch, the Luftwaffe also reinforced the local flak batteries protecting the facility. Nonetheless, when the British attacked, the center was “woefully unprepared” for almost six hundred RAF bombers carrying 1.5 million kilograms of explosives. Except for the unfortunate foreign laborers, Peenemünde had been lucky. The center had been saved more than anything else by the technical difficulty of a precision night raid against a series of relatively small targets. It was fortunate also that the damage appeared so devastating the next day that the RAF canceled plans for follow-up raids by itself or the Americans.
Inevitably, the attack set off a whirlwind of activity in Berlin, the Wolfsschanze, and elsewhere. It was a powerful reminder of the A-4 program’s increasing vulnerability to air attack. On June 21 at Friedrichshafen, and on August 13 at Wiener Neustadt, Allied bombers had unknowingly damaged the other two missile assembly sites in raids on neighboring facilities. Something obviously had to be done. What was done would result in fundamental changes to the character of Peenemünde and the roles of the various groups vying for control of the rocket program. The center’s personnel would decrease in numbers and would be dispersed over a much wider area. More important, A-4 production would depart from Peenemünde altogether and would move underground—to the benefit of the SS and at the cost of thousands of prisoner lives.